The Omicron variant is now the dominant Covid strain in the U.S., and the nation’s top health officials are issuing stern warnings that the situation will only get worse if Americans don’t take action to curb the virus’s spread.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert who serves as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Tuesday that the rapid spread of this variant is something he has not often seen.
‘Certainly this is unprecedented to see this rapidity for which any individual virus spreads throughout the world. It is really extremely unusual. It’s a doubling time of two to three days closer to two days,’ he told ABC’s Good Morning America.
‘That is truly unprecedented in the rapidity in which a virus spreads.’
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data Monday night showing that the highly infectious variant now accounts for 73 percent of U.S. Covid cases. The agency also revised last week’s data, increasing the share of the variant from 2.9 percent to 12.6 percent. This means the prevalence of the variant jumped six fold week-over-week. It has overtaken the Delta variant, which had been the nation’s dominant strain since July.
America also reported its first confirmed death from the variant on Monday night, when an unvaccinated Texas man between ages 50 and 60 succumbed to the variant.
Dr Anthony Fauci (left), the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warns that the Omicron variant is spreading at an ‘unprecedented’ rate and will double in cases every two days. Dr Rochelle Walensky (right), director of the CDC, said that people who have been boosted are 20 times less likely to die of Covid than an unvaccinated person. She also said her agency is reviewing the definition of ‘fully vaccianted’
Overall, though, cases of the variant have been relatively mild compared to Delta and other strains. It is a promising sign, but Fauci warns that the quick transmission of the virus could negate any positive effects of a less severe strain.
‘The idea that it can spread so rapidly, even if in fact it is less severe, and it appears at least from the South African data that there is less of a ratio of hospitalization to cases and duration of stay in the hospital, so it very well may be less severe. We’re hoping that that’s the case, and we’re hoping that as this evolves here in the United States that that will be our experience,’ he said.
‘Even if it is, quantity of infections, given the extraordinary efficiency of spread might actually obviate that diminution of severity to the point that you still get significant disease so we can not take this lightly at all.’
Overall cases in the U.S., which we now know are mostly of the newly discovered strain, have shot upwards as well. Johns Hopkins University report 253,954 new cases on Monday. It is the highest total since September 7 – the peak of the Delta wave – and only the third time since January the 250,000 daily case mark was eclipsed.
The nation is currently averaging 143,164 new cases every day, with that number likely to increase if Monday’s high case total becomes normal. New cases are up 20 percent over the past two weeks.
Deaths have stabilized, with America still at 1,299 deaths per day – a steady figure for the past two weeks. Hospitalizations have increased though, with 68,970 Americans receiving treatment for severe infection every day – a 14 percent increase over two weeks.
Confirmed Omicron cases increased by 37 percent day-over-day as well, up to 1,485 as of Tuesday morning, up from 1,079 on Monday. These figures are highly undercounting that total level of cases in the U.S., though, as it likely makes up hundreds of thousands – potentially millions – of cases at this point.
While things are trending in the wrong direction in the U.S, the situation in the UK is starting to stabilize. The nation was among the first to experience a massive surge in cases caused by the variant, with London in particular erupting as a global hotspot. Daily infections have remained relatively flat since last week, a promising sign that the variant is already burning out.
Still, some British health experts are fearing the worst, believing that new daily cases will jump from 91,743 a day to around 460,000 a day by the end of the year. Some, like Neil Ferguson, are even calling for lockdowns in some areas to curb the spread of the virus.
This situation in America is erupting right as the holiday season hits fully swing. Christmas is Saturday, and this week, millions of people will travel around the country and attend large gatherings with family and friends.
Fauci believes that holiday travel and festivities is still safe as long as a person is fully vaccinated, boosted, and takes other precautions to protect themselves from the virus.
‘If you are vaccinated and particularly boosted, and you are going to be involved in an indoor home setting with family, relatives, who are also vaccinated and boosted, you could feel comfortable in doing that social interaction,’ he said.
Before the arrival of Omicron, many of these trips would be totally safe. According to CDC data, 73 percent of Americans have received at least one shot of a Covid vaccine, and 61.5 percent are fully vaccinated. Early data shows that the current crop of available vaccines are not enough to protect from the new strain.
Early data shows the initial two-shot regimens of the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines – or one shot of the J&J vaccine – do little to prevent infection from the variant, though the two former may be able to prevent hospitalization or death.
The Pfizer and Moderna booster shot re-establish some of that protection, research has found, and health officials are now urging Americans to get their additional shot.
Dr Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, told CNBC’s Shepard Smith that the definition of ‘fully vaccinated’ is up for discussion based on new data from the variant.
‘We’re examining this definition of course, but what I want to be very clear about is CDC recommendations right now say that everyone who is over the age of 18, when they become eligible should get their booster shot,’ she said.
Walensky also noted that CDC data shows a person who is fully vaccinated and boosted is 20 times less likely to die from Covid than an unvaccinated person.
She also warns that the current two-dose vaccine regimens do not protect people from infection from the new strain. And while infection is often mild, especially for vaccinated people, there is still the risk of developing ‘long Covid’ or other complications as a result of the virus.
Fauci is pushing the unvaccinated to get the shots to prevent the spread of the virus, and even stop future variants from forming. He also echoed a grim warning issued by the White House to unvaccinated people last week.
‘One of the ways we can get it to stop is to get a lot more people vaccinated. It’s very unfortunate that we still have about 50 million people in this country who are eligible to be vaccinated who have not [gotten] vaccinated,’ Fauci told NBC’s TODAY.
‘[Covid] will stop when we get the overwhelming majority of people vaccinated and boosted.’
‘When the people who don’t get vaccinated, ultimately, this virus is going to find them, they will get infected and many of them will suffer, and get hospitalized and some will die.’
New York is has retaken the dubious honor of leading all states in confirmed Omicron cases, with 192 sequenced as on Tuesday morning.
Wisconsin has suffered a recent surge in Omicron cases, sequencing 187, trailing only New York. On Monday, state health officials issued a public health advisory, warning residents to get vaccinated and boosted before holiday travel later this week.
This story is being updated